I read an interview on CNN yesterday where they were talking to what they had decided was the “Republican Barack Obama,” and was struck by something he said. He said that the Democratic party wanted to give a man a fish, while the Republican party was the party that wanted to teach a man to fish. An obvious reference to the adage: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life.” (Trout starvation notwithstanding, I’ve always preferred the parody adage: “Give a man a fire he’ll be warm for a day, set a man on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”) While I don’t doubt that the Republicans favor individuality and self-reliance, I have to admit that the analogy brought two similar thoughts to mind:
1) A man stands on the beach, starving. He hasn’t eaten in days. A Republican happens by and tells the man, “I have this fish I could give you, but instead I’m going to give you some instruction that will be more helpful to you. In order to fish, put a hook on your fishing pole, put a worm on the hook, and lower it into the water. When the fish bites, pull sharply to set the hook and then slowly reel it in.” The Republican walks away feeling very satisfied that good has been done here. The starving man looks at the frozen ground devoid of worms and notes his lack of a hook or fishing pole. He glares at the retreating Republican because he already knew how to fish; he merely lacks the means to do so.
2) A fisherman pulls into shore after a long night of fruitless fishing. Despite his many years as a fisherman, he has not managed to catch any fish. He comes ashore pondering how he will be able to feed his family since the fish have simply not been biting. A Republican happens by and tells the man, “I have this fish I could give you, but instead I’m going to give you some instruction that will be more helpful to you. In order to fish, put a hook on your fishing pole, put a worm on the hook, and lower it into the water. When the fish bites, pull sharply to set the hook and then slowly reel it in.” The Republican walks away feeling very satisfied that good has been done here. The hungry fisherman glares after the retreating Republican because, while he has much more experience and skill at fishing than the advice-giver, he has simply been having a string of bad luck. The Republican’s advice was of no help whatsoever.
A democrat gives each man a fish. The starving man on the beach eats for a day and needs a fish again tomorrow. The unlucky fisherman eats for a day and is able to catch a few fish the next day to feed his family. He limps by.
A libertarian believes it is each man’s right to starve and does nothing to help.
A communist takes all the fish that were caught in the area and gives each person a fish. The rest they keep “for emergencies,” but the fish rot.
A fascist gives fishing rights only to corporations and declares that if you want to be a fisherman, you have to work for the corporation.
Follow up 1) One day a survivalist happens by the starving man, teaches him to make fish-hooks out of twigs and use vines as fishing line. The man is able to work his way up little by little till he can afford an actual fishing rod and hook and make a meager living as a fisherman, being able to eat most of the time unless the fish aren’t biting.
Follow up 2) One day a scientist develops a fish-sonar. The unlucky fisherman takes a chance and buys one. He’s better able to find fish, and his fortune improves. The sonar quickly pays for itself and the fisherman is better able to provide for his family.
Conclusion: The moral of this story is that if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, you can teach a man to fish and he may still starve, but if you give him the MEANS to fish, he’ll have a much better chance of survival.
The question is, “how can the government possibly know what means people need?” They really can’t. So they’re stuck giving either useless advice to “Be self-sufficient!” or hand outs. While handouts do nothing to help in the long term, they may help some limp by until the fish are biting again. It’s better than nothing, but does absolutely nothing to help those without the means of self-reliance to gain self-sufficiency. They will be eternally stuck begging for hand-outs. A handout to a man who has the means but has run into a string of bad luck may get them through their tough time, but they will be eternally at the mercy of the whims of fate. Ultimately, it would be nice if we could see beyond the immediate need to give a person what they truly need to thrive, but that is not likely to ever come from the government. So if our options are to tell people to be self-reliant without aiding them in attaining self-reliance or just give them hand-outs and make them reliant on the government, which is the better option?
In a good economy, there are greater possibilities. The fisherman could get a loan to buy the fish-sonar. The starving man may be able to get a job, even if it’s minimum wage. It is easier to say to people “Be self-sufficient” because there are means available for those willing to work at it to be self-sufficient. When the economy goes in the tank, there is an overall loss of opportunity and maybe that loan or that job just isn’t available. Telling people to be self-sufficient in that environment just does not work. (See election, 2008.) The question now becomes, “In this era of less do we click back to the opposite extreme of government hand-outs or do we go to the center and work to meet people’s needs by giving them the means to be self-reliant?”